Searching for the new, resurrecting the old

“From whatever angle you approach it, the present offers no way out. This is not the least of its virtues. From those who seek hope above all, it tears away every firm ground.”1

The Coming Insurrection was first published in France in 2007 where it was widely read, especially after it was connected to the case of the Tarnac 9, a group of French radicals who were arrested for allegedly sabotaging French railway lines. The prosecution claimed that two of the defendants had authored the pamphlet and used the claim as evidence for charges of “criminal association for the purposes of terrorist activity.” Since its publication in English, it has slowly gained a hearing, especially after it was vilified on-air by Glenn Beck.

The pamphlet is divided roughly into two sections: the first being an analysis of a number of different features of the alienation of modern society, including alienation from oneself, from friends and partners, from work, from the environment; the second, an attempt to outline a political response for radicals.

The analysis of contemporary society isn’t exactly new, drawing on postmodernism, autonomist Marxism and French situationism, especially the writings of Guy Dubord and his book Society of the Spectacle. The authors describe (often using striking imagery) a Kafkaesque society that no longer produces anything, but sustains itself by distracting its citizens with their continual self-improvement.

Today work is tied less to the economic necessity of producing goods than to the political necessity of producing producers and consumers, and of preserving by any means necessary the order of work. Producing oneself is becoming the dominant occupation of a society where production no longer has an object: like a carpenter who’s been evicted from his shop and in desperation sets about hammering and sawing himself.2

A culture of constant media bombardment, iPods and iPhones, not only alienates individuals from their labor and from each other, but ultimately from themselves by tying continual self-improvement to the commodification of leisure and culture.

We are living the paradox of a society of workers without work, where entertainment, consumption and leisure only underscore the lack from which they are supposed to distract us. The mine in Carmaux, famous for a century of violent strikes, has now been reconverted into Cape Discovery. It’s an entertainment “multiplex” for skateboarding and biking, distinguished by a “Mining Museum” in which methane blasts are simulated for vacationers.3

It’s a striking, Matrix-like image of a society in which production—which provided the foundation not only of Marx’s analysis of capitalism but his theories of workers’ power—has been replaced by a society whose only aim is its own self-perpetuation.

But to the degree that the picture has any connection to reality at all (a question we will return to), it is one-sided in the extreme. Marx, it’s true, wrote scathing analyses of alienation under capitalism and the way in which commodities are fetishized in our society, the way in which they seem to take on a life of their own and dominate us. But they were always part of the contradictory nature of capitalism, hiding a deeper reality of exploitation.

The expansion of commodity culture has progressed massively since Marx’s time, reaching not only the upper and middle classes, but virtually every corner of society. Freedom and even a person’s individuality in today’s society is indeed often measured in which clothes we can buy, what car we drive, and what home we own. And the annual $400 billion spent annually in the United States on advertising is designed to convince us that self-expression and self-worth can best be served by consuming the latest product or participating in the latest fad.

The media certainly manufacture not only consent, but distraction, with the latest tribulations of Lindsay Lohan regularly trumping the rising death toll in Afghanistan on the nightly news. But these illusory freedoms stand at odds with the lack of more fundamental freedoms: access to health care, economic security, freedom at work, etc. And while there may be times when the system is able to maintain a degree of legitimacy and paper over the contradictions, this is also a system that is subject to repeated crisis that can expose the hollowness of the promise of happiness through consumerism.

The dystopic world painted in The Coming Insurrection seems woefully out of touch in the era of mass credit card bankruptcies, financial collapse, and home foreclosures—in a time when the very perks of mass consumerism have become the sites of radicalization.

The authors see the commodification of culture as part of a larger process whereby actual production is becoming less and less central to the system—and with it the role of work:

Gains in productivity, outsourcing, mechanization, automated and digital production have so progressed that they have almost reduced to zero the quantity of living labor necessary in the manufacture of any product...In corporations, work is divided in an increasingly visible way into highly skilled positions of research, conception, control, coordination and communication which deploy all the knowledge necessary for the new, cybernetic production process, and unskilled positions for the maintenance and surveillance of this process.4

It’s an image that seems more at home in the science fiction novels of Isaac Asimov or the movies of the Wachowski brothers. It certainly is a picture that would be completely alien to the 300,000 workers of Foxconn in Southeast China, who after being paid $20 a week working in near-militarized conditions, produce (among other things) $10 billion worth of iPods, iPhones, and iPads each year—the very symbols of distraction identified by the authors earlier in the pamphlet.

Behind the spectacle of distraction lies a massively expanded world of both production and exploitation. There has, no doubt, been a massive global restructuring of the world’s working class. Today the typical global worker is an eighteen-year-old woman somewhere in East Asia. But it is fantasy to think that we live in a world without work. Today workers are more numerous and more exploited than in any time in history—and they still possess tremendous power (as the recent strike wave in Southern China has shown).5

But all this seems far beyond the limits of vision of The Coming Insurrection. In fact, there is a striking lack of empathy or understanding for the way capitalism tramples on the real, actual lives of working-class people. In their introduction, the authors write, “To tell the truth, the disastrous unemployment figures no longer provoke any feeling in us.”6 Perhaps this is just rhetorical flourish, not a callous disregard for the way the crisis is hitting working-class people, but it betrays a deeper weakness.

As the pamphlet moves further from the trials and tribulations of the upper middle class of the industrialized West, the picture painted by the authors seems to have less and less connection to any recognizable reality. Nowhere is this more clear than in the authors’ treatment of the banlieue revolts of 2005, when the marginalized, largely immigrant youth of Paris’s suburbs rose up in nearly two weeks of rioting.

The authors would like to claim not only a solidarity with the riots, but a continuity between them and the strategies proposed by the authors. But they seem completely unable to understand the riots’ real dynamics. The authors write:

The fires of November 2005 offer a model...No leader, no demands, no organization, but words, gestures, complicities. To be socially nothing is not a humiliating condition, the source of some tragic lack of recognition—from whom do we seek recognition?—but is on the contrary the condition for maximum freedom of action.7

Only someone for whom marginality—to be “socially nothing”—is a voluntary choice could write those words. For those born on or forced into the margins, they are a constant reminder of the very real inequality and oppression that is faced on a daily basis: to be ignored by the press, vilified by politicians, harassed by the police. The banlieue revolts were not a celebration of marginality; they were a revolt of those for whom every other avenue in French society had been closed off. The aim was to be heard.

If the authors had been able to ask the individuals who took part in them, they would have, no doubt, found very real demands: an end to police harassment and murder, an end to anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim attacks by the government, and—much to the surprise of the authors—demands for access to better education and jobs. The fact that such demands were not voiced—or, more precisely, not reported by a media that never bothered to ask—was not because those demands didn’t exist, but because the political organization did not exist to coordinate them and make them heard.

It is one thing to celebrate and defend the spontaneous struggles of people rebelling against the system; it is another thing to make a virtue out of necessity. The role of radicals should not be to celebrate the absence of organization, but help in the process of its reconstitution, not from the outside, but from within—assisting in any way possible the continued self-activity and self-organization of those who took part in the revolts, and attempting to connect those struggles to those of the students fighting to defend their schools, workers fighting layoffs, and the struggles of workers internationally.

There are times when the authors seem to concede that the struggles of workers are not superfluous to society. They note the success of blockades and highway occupations in the struggles that broke out in Argentina beginning in 2001:

In a delocalized economy where companies function according to “just-in-time” production, where value derives from connectedness to the network, where the highways are links in the chain of dematerialized production which moves from subcontractor to subcontractor and from there to another factory for assembly, to block circulation is to block production as well.8

They also make the important point that in a revolutionary struggle, one whose aim is not simply the temporary disruption of society, but its revolutionary transformation, blockades have their limits:

How will we feed ourselves once everything is paralyzed? Looting stores, as in Argentina, has its limits; as large as the temples of consumption are, they are not bottomless pantries... Acquiring the skills to provide, over time, for one’s own basic subsistence implies appropriating the necessary means of its production.9

However, the authors seem ambiguous on whether workers in traditional urban centers are part of the enemy:

For France, the loss of centralized power signifies the end of Paris as the center of revolutionary activity...To put it bluntly, Paris now stands out only as a target for raids, as a pure terrain to be pillaged and ravaged.10

Rejecting the ability of workers to take over the means of production themselves, the authors propose a strategy of guerrilla liberation from the countryside, a movement that will appropriate the technical knowledge of the system and then turn it against itself from without: “Brief and brutal incursions from the outside strike at the metropolitan flows at their point of maximum density.”11

This strategy of decentralized revolution, they argue, is necessitated by the end of centralized power in contemporary capitalism:

Winter Palaces still exist but they have been relegated to assaults by tourists rather than revolutionary hordes. Today it is possible to take over Paris, Rome, or Buenos Aires without it being a decisive victory.12

This is a straw man—first because it was never true. The French communards of 1871 could take over Paris, but alone they could not hold it. The Bolsheviks could take Petrograd, but they understood very clearly that they could not hold on without the support of the peasants in the countryside.

But it is just as true that without taking Paris, Rome, or Buenos Aires, revolutionary movements can never consolidate themselves. It is a reality that has confronted the Zapatistas, who are often cited as a model of revolutionary struggle without taking power. Initially after their insurrection in January of 1994, they were able to consolidate support in Chiapas only to face continual assault from the Mexican state and the gradual erosion of their base even in Chiapas.

This should not diminish the importance of the Zapatista struggle or the banlieue riots in Paris. The left must champion every attempt to resist oppression. But, as author Paul D’Amato writes, “Making class central... does not deny the importance of the fight against different oppressions. It merely points to the fact that the oppression fostered by capitalism cannot be destroyed so long as these struggles are not linked to the working-class struggle for socialism.”13

The idea that workers themselves could expropriate the means of production and run them democratically would, no doubt, be seen as hopelessly out of date by the authors. And The Coming Insurrection is certainly a product of the failure of the official left—in both social-democratic and communist varieties—to provide any way forward from the crisis. Whatever its weaknesses, The Coming Insurrection is a welcome attempt to put forward a revolutionary manifesto for a new generation.

In the end, however, the authors seem to propose a revolutionary movement that is both hostile to the real struggle of workers today—the fight for jobs and against unemployment or the fight against environmental degradation of working-class communities—and at the same time looks to the anonymous, conspiratorial actions of a professional band of guerrillas as the source of liberation. In trying to develop a strategy that is new, the authors seem to have updated all the weaknesses of the insurrectionary anarchist movement of the late nineteenth century, its conspiratorialism, its hostility to democracy, and its celebration of fragmented, decentralized struggles. The result then was not the romantic image of struggle imagined by the authors at the close of the pamphlet:

Surprise attacks mounted in city after city, day after day. A new military barracks has been sacked and burned to the ground. The evicted residents of a building have stopped negotiating with the mayor’s office; they settle in...There’s been a leak of files containing the personal addresses of all the cops, together with those of prison officials, causing an unprecedented wave of sudden relocations... A rocket has just breached a wall of the Clairvaux prison. Impossible to say if it has been months or years since the “events” began. And the prime minister seems very alone in his appeals for calm.14

Instead, the result was the needless crushing of isolated, fragmented insurrections. Of the Spanish insurrectionaries Engels wrote: “Nothing remains of the so-called principles of anarchy, free federation of independent groups, etc., but the boundless, and senseless fragmentation of the revolutionary resources, which enabled the government to conquer one city after another with a handful of soldiers, practically unresisted.”15

Unfortunately, in their focus, the authors have overlooked some of the very real changes—the globalization of production, the expansion of access to communication technology, and the onset of new a systemic crisis—that open up new possibilities for rebuilding a revolutionary movement even as they present new challenges for a new generation of revolutionaries.

  1. The Invisible Committee, The Coming Insurrection, 2007.
  2. Ibid., 32.
  3. Ibid., 30.
  4. Ibid., 30.
  5. For coverage of the strike waves of Chinese workers, see David Whitehouse, “A Sleeping Giant Stirs in China,” Socialist Worker, July 27, 2010. For a moving account of the growth of the global working class see Paul Mason, Live Working or Die Fighting (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2010). For a wealth of statistical information see Chris Harman, “The Workers of the World,” International Socialism Journal, Autumn 2002. The disappearance of production jobs in the advanced industrialized countries should also be taken with some skepticism. It is true, for instance, that there has been a huge decline of manufacturing jobs in places like Detroit, Chicago and Rochester. Some of those jobs have relocated overseas. But just as often, they have been moved to smaller, non-union plants, often in the Southeast U.S. See Adam Turl, “Is the U.S. Becoming Post-Industrial?ISR 52, March–April 2007.
  6. The introduction is available here.
  7. The Coming Insurrection, 75.
  8. Ibid., 82.
  9. Ibid., 83.
  10. Ibid., 87.
  11. Ibid., 87.
  12. Ibid., 86.
  13. Paul D’Amato, “The Powerlessness of Anti-Power,” ISR 27, January–February 2003.
  14. The Coming Insurrection, 90.
  15. Frederick Engels, “The Bakuninists at work,” in Marx, Engels, Lenin, Anarchism and Anarchosyndicalism (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1974), 146.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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